Giorgio de Chirico
Year, Birthplace 1888, Greece
Year, Place of death 1978, Italy
Nationality Italy
During his childhood, Giorgio de Chirico was surrounded by classical art revealed to him by his father, an Italian working in Greece. After his father’s death in 1905, he studied painting in Munich. Around this time he discovered Die Toteninsel [The Isle of the Dead], a series of paintings by Arnold Böcklin which had a profound influence on him. When his family moved to Italy, he painted the urban landscape that he could see from his window, making numerous discoveries owing to the number of times that he moved house. Using multiple vanishing points, with irregular perspectives and plays of shadows, he represented the emptiness of the apparently uninhabited streets which were occasionally populated by statues, tailors’ dummies or lost passers-by. Many of his disturbingly static paintings, in which time appears to be petrified, have titles beginning with the word enigma: Enigma of the Hour, Enigma of the Oracle etc. He appropriated a series of objects – towers, gloves, Zeus’ head, trains, porticos, artichokes, bunches of bananas – as a repertoire that allowed him to illustrate a sort of personal mythology, expressing an introspective and imaginary dimension. In 1911 he moved to Paris. Guillaume Appollinaire, who was seduced by what he called the ‘metaphysical side’ of the de Chirico paintings that he discovered in art dealer Paul Guillaume’s shop, visited him in his studio and began to purchase a collection of his works. André Breton began noticing his paintings in 1912-1913 at the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants as well as at Appollinaire’s house. When the opportunity arose, Breton also bought works by de Chirico, including Le Cerveau de l’enfant [The Child's Brain], the discovery of which counts as one of the most famous episodes in the history of surrealism – Breton leapt from a bus when he saw this work in Paul Guillaume’s shop window and kept it above the head of his bed for the rest of his life. The poet saw the painter as a seer, sensitive to the anguish of time, and a creator of modern myths. During the war, de Chirico, who was first mobilised in Ferrara, was granted unlimited leave by the military authorities. At this stage he was painting interiors, ‘metaphysical spaces’ populated by maps or set squares as well as views of cities in which the arcades and squares of the city where he lived can be identified. In 1919 he discovered Rome, its ancient monuments and the art of the Renaissance. Becoming fascinated by technique, he set out to copy ‘great painting’. His shadowless spaces are populated by Greek columns and his dummies are replaced by ancient warriors or horses. His break with his early period occurred progressively, as reflected in the work La Partenza degli Argonauti [The Departure of the Argonauts] (1922). The painter adopted a polemical stance in relation to the ‘modern spirit’. Returning to Paris in 1925, he mixed with Breton and the surrealists for a time although his development was criticised and he was considered to be a renegade. He presented new works at Léonce Rosenberg’s L’Effort Moderne gallery in 1928. By way of denouncing him, the surrealists exhibited the works that he created in the 1910s in the gallery on rue Jacques Callot, surrounded by objects of African origin. Aragon entitled his preface: 'From de Chirico's ancient painting a mythology is born and de Chirico himself dies’. The violence of the surrealists’ reaction was proportional to their disappointment. Relations between de Chirico and the surrealists became conflicted and the painter immersed himself in academicism, devoting himself to portraits, self-portraits, still lifes and paintings of horses or stage sets in a style that sought to imitate Rubens. He would never rediscover the spirit of his early works despite reprising the more financially rewarding ‘metaphysical painting’ in his later years. AC